Thursday, 13 November 2008

Senile, mobile, hostile




Tragic, yet hilarious doc on Andre Williams explains his rise to fame, and his fall from grace.

An elderly man stands on a cold Chicago bridge. His worn face betrays years of drug and alcohol abuse and his jaw quivers as he charms passing strangers into filling his hat with change. Those familiar with the legendary reputation of Andre Williams may be shocked by the opening scene of Tricia Todd and Eric Matthies’ documentary, ‘Agile, Mobile, Hostile: A year in the life of Andre Williams.’ But Williams is just acting out a scene from a difficult time in his life. In the 50s and 60s he was a star. By the 1980s he was a panhandler and a crack-head.

Andre started singing in the fifties, recording over 50 songs for Fortune records, including ‘Bacon Fat’, ‘Jailbait’ and ‘The Greasy Chicken’. He went on to become a producer, working with the likes of Ike Turner and Stevie Wonder. Andre’s songs have been covered by everyone from Ray Charles to The Cramps. He even worked as an A&R man several times for Barry Gordon at Motown. In 1996 he cleaned up and released a come back album. Now at the age of 72, with sex, drugs and rum all making a come back in his life, Andre’s health is starting to deteriorate.

Todd and Matthies always work as a team, it’s a formula that helped them in the creation of ‘Ayamye’, their documentary about making bicycles in Africa, and it helped with ‘Agile, Mobile, Hostile’. Tricia also has experience working as production manager on several DVD-extras menu documentaries for films including 300, a Scanner Darkly and The Matrix Revisited. She and Eric have been fans of Andre for over 10 years. “Both of us have a life-long involvement with the underground; be it punk or garage, blues or jazz.” She explains, “Andre personifies all of it.”

Seeing Andre being so self destructive is alarming, during one live performance in the film, Andre is so weak, he can barely perform. On another shocking occasion he is arrested for possession and another he is hospitalised and told by his doctor he will die if he doesn’t make some life style changes. “It was difficult to balance perspectives between being his friend and wanting to remain objective as filmmakers.” Tricia confesses. “Don’t tell Andre but we always watered down his bottle of Bacardi.”

The film starts as a biography, explaining Andre’s history and achievements with the aid of interviews and archive footage, but ends up focusing on how today’s Andre finds it difficult to tour and perform in his old age and is a difficult man for his band mates to get along with. There is a depressing contrast between the success of his early musical career and his being brought out to perform like an old bear at the circus in his twilight years.

Tricia and Eric do not regret documenting the vulnerable side of the music legend, “My only regret is Andre not getting the success he deserves during that year!” Tricia says. The documentary is as much a critique of the way the music industry exploited gifted black musicians in the early days, as it is a window into the life of Andre Williams. “The system in which young song writers and performers worked, especially African American artists, in the 50s was very advantageous to the businessmen who ran the show and very disingenuous to the naïve young men and women with the talent. Andre is certainly a victim of this, like so many others.”

The tragic element, although moving, does not dominate the documentary. Andre has a terrific sense of humour and is relentlessly optimistic. Despite having so little to show for his remarkable career, he rarely lets his bitterness show. Andre's magnetic character and determination, ultimately, make the film very uplifting.

The Stool Pigeon December 2008

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